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Jan Mueggenberg (Vienna) We Cannot Bid the Ear be Still. On Techno-Physiological Media and Bionic Ears 

In his 1967 book The Medium is the Massage Marshall McLuhan expressively reinforces his famous dictum of technological media as ›extensions of the human nervous system‹. As McLuhan argues, »by altering the environment media evoke in us unique ratios of sense perceptions« and since »any one sense alters the way we think and act« media structure the way we perceive the world. While McLuhan’s concept of media as sensual prosthetics indisputably has been one of the most influential concepts in the history of media theory in the 20th century, much less attention has been paid to his general understanding of the workings of the human senses. However, from a remarkable quote at the bottom of the page 45 of the very same book we can get an idea of the importance McLuhan attached to the physiological senses: »The eye — it cannot choose but see; we cannot bid the ear be still; our bodies feel, where'er they be, against or with our will.« Using this verse from a poem written by the British romantic poet William Wordsworth in 1798 McLuhan obviously expresses a strong belief in a general autonomy of the human sensorium. It seems that at the bottom of his media theory we find the assumption of a general superiority of the senses over the mind. Marshall McLuhan’s early media theory coincides with a second wave of cybernetic research which emphasized the role of the sensory organs as self-organizing ›biological computers‹. Between 1958 and 1974 scientists at the Biological Computer Laboratory (B.C.L.) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign tried to construct ›bionic‹ machines in order to replicate the perceptive abilities of biological organisms. Experimenting with these analogue computers and combining ideas from cybernetics and biological systems theory with latest results in experimental physiology B.C.L.’s director Heinz von Foerster sought after ›operational definitions‹ of universal physiological principles such as the ›lateral inhibition‹ that were assumed to organize the complex phenomena of ›hearing‹ or ›seeing‹. Following the physiological works of Jerome Lettvin and Humberto Maturana these experiments were guided by the idea of an ›physiological synthetic apriori‹ that predetermines our way of perceiving the world. One major group of B.C.L. projects was related to ›speech recognition‹ and the general functioning of the ›mammalian auditory system‹: Following the work of the Hungarian physiologist Georg von Békésy, who had claimed that the essential parts of the mammalian ear could be described as a ›signal analyzer‹, a machine was built to model its performance. More specifically, the Dynamic Signal Analyzer was built on the assumption that the analysis of the travelling waves in the basilar membrane of the inner ear was ›computationally equivalent‹ to a Fourier transform being performed on the acoustic wave. Within the machine this ›precomputation‹ of the acoustic signal was realized through a series of spectrum analyses performed on an electrical current produced by a conventional microphone. The construction of an ›artificial ear‹ thus followed the ›discovery‹ that its living prototype, the mammalian ear, was functioning as a signal processing device which could be described by a well known engineering principle. Drawing on unedited archival material from the University of Illinois Archives in Urbana-Champaign and the Heinz von Foerster-Archives in Vienna I am going to present the Dynamic Signal Analyzer to exemplify the bio-cybernetic research conducted at the B.C.L. A brief but close examination of the actual experimental work sheds light on what I call the ›discovery‹ of the senses as ›techno-physiological media‹ around 1960. Obviously this bio-cybernetic approach of conceptualizing sensory organs as self-organizing ›biological computers‹ that precompute visual or acoustic stimuli before they reach the brain was the starting point from where Heinz von Foerster and Humberto Maturana developed their reflexive Second Order Cybernetics. However, as I am going to show, Marshall McLuhan, who met Heinz von Foerster in 1964 at a conference at Georgetown University on »Cybernetics and Society«, also developed his early media theory on the autonomy of the human sensorium against the background of the biocomputer-movement. Adding an important piece to the jigsaw it becomes clear that he cybernetic approach of a ›techno-physiology‹ of the senses greatly contributed to the emergence of media theory during the 1960s.